Sure, "Saving Our Grandchildren From Climate Change" Sounds Nice…

(Photo: Atmospheric Infrared Sounder)

(Photo: Atmospheric Infrared Sounder)

You want to know what the biggest obstacle to dealing with climate change is? Simple: time. It will take decades before the carbon dioxide we emit now begins to have its full effect on the planet’s climate. And by the same token, it will take decades before we are able to enjoy the positive climate effects of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions now. (Even if we could stop emitting all CO? today, there’s already future warming that’s been baked into the system, thanks to past emission.)

That is the lead of Bryan Walsh‘s excellent Time article called “Why We Don’t Care About Saving Our Grandchildren From Climate Change.” It covers much of the ground we covered in SuperFreakonomicsbut probably does a better job in laying out the inherent conflicts of climate change — long-term problem vs. short-term incentives — without enraging people.

Walsh writes about a paper that, in an experimental setting, asked research subjects to pool their investments to address climate change, with a variety of time horizons. There are all kinds of nits to pick with the experiment — it’s an experiment, for one — but it’s well worth pondering:

Unsurprisingly, the more delayed the payout was, the less likely the experimental groups would put enough money away to meet the goal to stop climate change. Even among those who knew they’d get the payout the next day, only seven of 10 groups invested sufficient funds, while none of the 11 groups who knew their endowment would be invested in planting trees gave enough money to “stop” climate change. While this is just one experiment, the results do not bode well for humanity’s ability to come together to stop climate change.


This is nothing new. Our political system (and business system) is predicated on getting results now. Investment or mitigation with the future in mind is mostly forbidden.

What's ironic is that progressives argue that we need to "do something" about climate change (and they're generally right on that), but then they continue to believe that the government can pile up insane amounts of debt and that that debt will not adversely affect future generations.

We have fully embraced instant gratification. So much so that we are almost completely crippled from making long term decisions.


The curious thing is that there are so many actions, from CFL/LED lighting to fuel-efficient transport, that do deliver nearly instant gratification, yet people seem to be so emotionally attached to the old, bad ways of doing things. Makes me wonder how our ancestors ever convinced the public to trade in their tallow candles for whale-oil lamps.

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I hear that tallow candles smell bad, so switching from tallow to oil lamps would have provided an immediately better user experience. Fuel-efficient transport, by contrast, doesn't have a better user experience: a car that gets 22 mpg is the same user experience as an otherwise identical car that gets 25 mpg.

Eric M. Jones

I recently read a long diatribe regarding global warming in my local paper, and am left with the curious question:...just what the hell does anyone suggest we do about it? All minor actions like recycling or using renewable energy are simply trivial compared to the forces causing it.

Reduce the population? Stop burning fossil fuels? March in a parade? Hold our breaths?

Let's start with YOU.


Here's the crux, to make a big impact, we need fewer people. To get fewer people, we need more disease, shorter lifespans, wars, genocide, starvation and the like. So what do we as humans do? We form groups dedicated to reducing all these natural hindrances to human population, pour trillions upon trillions of dollars into them, then think we're going to change the world's climate with a tax? Silly people. One cannot be both a serious environmentalist and an ethical human.

I look forward to Greenpeace's new ad campaign: "Save the whales, let the brown people die!"

Lee Siu Hoi

Wrong. Let's start with ME.
We have no natural children of our own, although we live in Hong Kong, the part of China that do not have "One Child Policy".
Do not complain about China's "One Child Policy". This is perhaps the biggest contribution of China to saving the planet.


Are you implying that the reason behind the "One Child Policy" is to "save the planet"? China is the biggest contributor (CO2-wise) to destroying the planet, "One Child" or not.


They are not implying it's the reason. They are stating that it is the contribution. The one child policy was introduced for reasons (so far as I am aware) totally unrelated to climate change. However, by reducing population growth, it is having an enormous environmental impact. It's an unintended consequence, in this case a positive one.

caleb b

I'm a government skeptic and I'm more worried the solution will be worse than problem.

steve cebalt

Human nature; hard to see the payoff of current actions after I am dead. Self interest in the extreme, but it's the norm. My town built a shiny new baseball stadium (the "old" one was 10 years old; I have socks older than that). But our city's sewers are 120 years old, and our rivers and many homes are filled with feces (yes, sh*t) every time it rains. But the sewer system is a big, massive, astronomically costly problem. Easier to get the plebs excited with bread and circuses now. Worry about the inevitable sewer collapse when it is a true catastrophe.


"the results do not bode well for humanity’s ability to come together to stop climate change"

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are themselves an attempt to change the climate.

"it will take decades before we are able to enjoy the positive climate effects of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions now"

How do you know the effects will be positive?


I've mostly switched over to CFLs. The one place I haven't is in the lamp next to the chair where I sit to do my needlework. I have yet to find a non-incandescent bulb that both fits in the lamp and provides the kind and strength of light I need to see to do my needlework.

IME, a CFL claiming to be as bright as a 100 watt incandescent is really only about the equivalent of a 40 watt. And I've had CFLs last me less than three years before blowing out.


We need to focus on particulate pollution and dealing with rising temperatures and ocean levels. It's absurd to think we can stop or reverse global warming, even IF it were a good idea, which it is not. Global cooling would be far worse for the planet.